Piney Woods Relations
Yvonne Bivins had to make a choice very few Americans have forced upon them. She could live as a black woman or a white woman.
Yvonne’s ancestry is enmeshed with the Knights of Jones County. She was born into one of the so-called “White Negro” communities that sprang up after the Civil War all over through the Piney Woods. These communities grew up around Piney Woods plantations, actually no bigger than farms. There’s Six Town and Soso and Sheeplow. Her community is called Kelly Settlement and located few miles miles outside of Laurel.
Hold on to your hats and I’ll tell you how Kelly Settlement came into existence. John Kelly, an early petitioner in Mississippi Territory, purchased 640 acres on the Leaf River. His son, Green Kelly had a liaison with a slave named Sarah. Sarah had children by her white master, by a white neighbor and by another slave on the farm. That made three sets of children, a total of eleven.
This may surprise you. It sure did me. But according to Yvonne, it was not an uncommon practice for Piney Woods slave owners, perhaps because of the intimacy created by these modest estates that demanded close-quarters living, to provide for all their offspring, regardless of color. We just don’t hear about it. Newt Knight was vilified not because he sired darker offspring, but because he refused to deny them.
Green Kelly was more discreet. When he died he left parcels of land for the children of each set. The children Kelly personally sired were bequeathed land on the Monroe Road. The ones sired by the white neighbor received land on the Eatonville Road. The ones sired by the slave got land over on the River Road. Kelly Settlement was, and still is to a great degree, populated by Kelly’s bi-racial lineage.
In Soso, only a road divides the black descendants of the major slave owner of that time from his white descendants. Yet, it is two separate worlds.
Through the years, most of these settlements have isolated themselves from the population at large. Many of the children were sent away to “pass,” heading off to the West or North to blend into the white world. Sometimes they were so successful, their children and grandchildren were unaware of their heritage. I’ve heard tales of proud white people rifling through courthouse records to trace their family tree, probably trying to discover a Confederate colonel or two, and screaming out in alarm when they find a “B” (black) or an “M” (mulatto) by an ancestor’s name.
Yvonne says that passing locally was out of the question, as whites kept tabs on you. And sometimes blacks would call you out in public, either by referring to you by your first name, instead of “Mr.” Or “Miss.” Or perhaps asking you about some common relation known to be black while a white person was listening.
Some light-skinned blacks moved no farther than Hattiesburg to pass. A great aunt of Yvonne’s was a brilliant seamstress. Her customers were mostly from the wealthy Jewish community in town and they encouraged her to pass as white. She bought a house on the end of 4th Street, next to the tracks, right on the border between the white section an the black section.
When the census taker came around, she told him they were Indian. Darker relatives were not received at the front door and were asked to go around to the back. Things were turning out fine until Tap Roots was published, outing many of the black Knights who were passing. One of the great aunt’s boys tried to enter the white section in the Saenger Theater downtown and he was kicked out because now the family was suspect. Unwilling to revert to living as black, Yvonne’s great aunt bought a boxcar and packed up her home and moved to Memphis. As a side note, Yvonne says that when she died, her aunt was buried in the white cemetery in Memphis shared by Elvis’s mother. So maybe she finally got what she wanted.
Next week Yvonne’s tale continues with the story of those light-skinned blacks like her grandparents who opted to stay in the Piney Woods, where they were seen by most as too white to black, and too black to be white.
Piney Woods Relations
I interviewed Yvonne Bevins last summer on her mother’s front porch. Yvonne’s grandfather built the house in 1925 in the Kelly Settlement, one of several White Negro Communities that sprung up in the Piney Woods after the Civil War, populated by what people called back then mulattoes. These light-skinned blacks were known to be offspring of the local plantation owner and one or more of his slaves. As Yvonne discussed last week, it was common for children to be sent out of Mississippi to pass as white. But what happened to the ones who chose to stay put, like her own family, in a land where many considered them too white to be black and too black to be white?
Yvonne told me that those who remained in the community had a time of it, too. They were encouraged to marry other light-skinned blacks. Yvonne said that often the “paper bag” rule was enforced when it came to picking a spouse. In other words, don’t marry anyone darker than a paper bag. Or as Yvonne’s grandfather warned, “Keep to your own kind.”
Yvonne’s grandmother, who could have passed for white, stayed and proudly claimed her “one-drop.” When whites asked her why she chose to live as a black, she told them, “Because if I were white, I’d be a poor white and would rather be a dog. And if I were Indian I would be on some reservation. No thank-you, I’d rather be a N_____!”
Being light-skinned attracted other kinds of unwelcome attention. Yvonne remembers when she was teenager, a stranger came to her mother’s house, took one look at her and her light-skinned sister and commented to her mother, “You’re sitting on a gold mine here,” referring to the price some white men would pay to be with a girl with that shade of skin.
Yvonne also told me the story of a white man named Knight, stalking through her neighborhood, looking for sex. “He got upset when I told him we were probably kin.”
An interesting dilemma developed among those who remained. To find eligible marriage partners who were suitably light-skinned, families had to make excursions to other White Negro communities to seek out husbands and wives for their children. “That’s how my ancestors got involved with the Knights,” Yvonne says. “My kin went over to Soso from to find people who were as white-skinned as they were. I wondered how the White Negro Community in Soso interacted with the local black population. “They didn’t associate with dark-skinned blacks socially. They couldn’t go to school with whites and wouldn’t go to school with blacks. Many chose to be educated in the school Anna Knight began in Jones County at Gitano.”
Anna was the daughter of Newt Knight and Rachel’s daughter George Anne, a racially mixed woman. Yvonne said, “The Seventh Day Adventists will tell you she opened the school for religious reasons which is true, however the school was built for her light-skinned relatives who didn’t want to attend school with blacks.” Even today, darker skinned Knights and lighter-skinned Knights descendants have separate family reunions.
Yvonne admits that there are deep-rooted cultural differences that kept the light-skinned and the dark-skinned apart. “The white Negroes grew up closer to white plantation owners, around music and reading, china, crystal and fine linen. So there was definitely a class barrier. It’s the difference between the house slave and the field slave. That’s why these communities would isolate themselves. In fact, when one of Yvonne’s Knight kin actually married a dark skinned man, they had to move to Washington D. C. because her family didn’t want her around.”
And there were reasons for darker skinned blacks to feel resentful. Light-skinned blacks seemed to get preferential treatment from whites. For instance, according the Yvonne and her cousins, white employers favored hiring them as light-skinned blacks. They would put them “up front” in banks, department stores and other places where services were provided to white people. They figured our lighter skin would be accepted more easily by white customers.” For example, as the first step in integrating city schools the administration decided to integrate the staff. It was decided to send light-skinned blacks to the white schools. When the faculty met in a general assembly for the first time, blacks looked around in disbelief. All the blacks had the same shade of skin—they were all light.
Yvonne acknowledges the insanity of this obsession with color and believes the time for shame about the past is over. The way to do it is to make sure the truth gets told about this perplexing, but little understood facet of Southern culture.
What motivates her?
Yvonne, who identifies as black, went to historically black colleges, worked for civil rights and married a black man, has one burning desire.
“All roads lead back to Rachel Knight,” she says. “Her story is our story. She’s been put away in the closet. Because of the rough treatment by people like Ethel Knight in her book, Echo of the Black Horn, Rachel’s descendants have denied her blood. According to Ethel and those like her, Rachel is where the evil came in and infected the white race. My own family wouldn’t defend her name because they were made to feel so ashamed. Until recently, we didn’t even know the names of Rachel’s children.”
“But now,” Yvonne says firmly, “Rachel needs to be heard without prejudice.”
She may be right. If we can understand Rachel’s story, perhaps we can understand the quagmire of race itself.
For more columns on Newt Knight, life and his family, black and white see: